Depending your political views, you may see Third – a character played by Christopher Sears – as enthusiastic and passionate about learning, or as an entitled, condescending and arrogant jock. You’ll have to see for yourself during Two River Theater Company’s production of “Third”, the final play written by the late Wendy Wasserstein.
Twenty years ago, the Two River Theater Company presented “The Heidi Chronicles,” as part of its debut season. The acclaimed play won both the Tony Award and Pulitizer Prize for Wasserstein. For the company’s anniversary, they decided to return to her work with a play that may even resonate more in our currently heated political climate than when it was originally produced in 2004.
“Third” tells the story about Laurie Jameson, a revered, mid-fifties, college professor at a liberal arts college in November 2002 who accuses a student of plagiarism and is forced to face the consequences. The student is a preppy jock named Woodson Bull III who carries the nickname “Third.” The professor and Third face off in a series of verbal battles over politics, ethics, and Shakespeare.
Woodson Bull III’s professor is played by Annette O’Toole, who might be best known for portraying Martha Kent on the TV series “Smallville” and starring with her husband, Michael McKean, in the film “A Mighty Wind.” Rounding out the cast is Emily Walton as Emily Jameson, Amy Hohn as Nancy, and J.R. Horne as Jack Jameson.
While Third is considered a jock on campus, he doesn’t really see himself that way, says Sears. “He’s really a tremendous guy. He’s very interested in learning. I don’t think he thinks of himself as being defined by any one thing that he does. I think he’s defined by his openness to all things because that’s what makes him unique.”
In addition to being seen as a jock, Third is also often labeled as a Republican. “He says he’s not really a Republican,” explained Sears. “He never commits to being a Republican, he’s more of someone on the fence politically.”
“Politics have become so black and white,” continued Sears. “You’re either with us or against us. There’s no coming together on middle ground.”
The play is directed by Michael Cumpsty, an Obie-winning and Tony Award-nominated actor who Sears credits with bringing his character into the proper focus. Sears admits it would be rather easy to portray Third as simply a stereotype, but Cumpsty helped direct him towards a character that has multiple levels. Some will see him the way the Professor does, while others will see him in an entirely different light. Cumpsty’s direction is even impressive since this production his first ever solo directing credit.
Sears says the role was a challenge for him because the writing in the play is quite demanding. “From an acting perspective, it’s more like Shakespeare because Shakespeare demands complete clarity of thought and navigation through these really intricate paragraphs,” he said. While Shakespeare’s work generally involves characters speaking to each other in complete paragraphs, Wasserstein’s work is similar. “You have the same thoughts about when is the best place to breathe? And that’s a thought I’ve only had when performing Shakespeare.”
Despite being from St. Louis, it’s very likely that Sears will have some friends in the audience. He graduated from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University where he was fortunate enough to actually perform Shakespeare in its original setting – The Globe Theatre in London. It was an experience he will never forget.
“For me, it was the coolest thing ever,” said Sears. “I think it’s probably every actor’s dream. The combination of Shakespeare, which, in my opinion, is some of the most fun stuff to do because its interactive with the audience. You literally try to generate responses, it’s old school theatre and it’s heightened and supported by the Globe. There’s airplanes and rain, people standing and moving around, walking out and coming in — you feel like you’re in a game. It’s like, “listen, I’ve got this thing I’m going to tell you and I’ve got to make it interesting because people are starting to sit down!
“In a much kinder, artistic way, it’s like going to war,” he adds. “It just demands that you grow up in your artistry. You totally have to make it a challenge for yourself because if you don’t just light it up out there, you’ll look like an idiot. It’s one of those chances that can really make you or break you… It’s like playing in the big leagues.”
“Third” by Wasserstein runs from May 31 through June 22 at the Rechnitz Theater in Red Bank. For more information visit http://www.tworivertheater.org.